Lucasville Legacy: A historic, deadly prison riot prompted changes in Ohio's lockups
30 years ago this month, one of the longest prison riots in US history finally ended after 11 days. 400 inmates from three gangs at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville held that prison for nearly two weeks, and when the siege was over, one guard and nine inmates were dead. Lucasville prison guards who were taken hostage during the 1993 riot said they cannot forget it.
"I thought I was going to die. There was quite a few times throughout the riot that there were situations and developments that were occurring that I thought I would not make it out," corrections officer Darrold Clark said.
“It took a long time to dawn on us that hey, this is a full scale riot," fellow guard Mike Hensley said.
The riot began on Easter Sunday
Simmering tensions at the lockup erupted on what is considered the holiest day of the year for Christians in 1993.
Former Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Reggie Wilkinson said there were a variety of factors that led up to the riot, including a new warden with new rules, tuberculosis tests containing alcohol which upset Muslim inmates, and severe overcrowding.
“We had probably double the capacity of a maximum security prison. The way it was constructed was like a medium security physical plant than a maximum security one. There was too much movement for persons who were that high risk," Wilkinson said.
Once media outlets started to hear about the disturbance, they descended on the grounds outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in the small town of Lucasville, 10 miles from the Ohio River.
“Because of all that came before the riot, Lucasville was like a powder keg with so much pressure and it only took one spark to set it off," said Jim Otte, then a reporter for WHIO, a Dayton television station.
Hensley hid in a stairwell, but was taken hostage by prisoners, as was Clark.
"There's not a date that don't go by that I don't think about this. I mean, there's no way a person could," Clark said.
"They wanted to kill somebody but they just couldn’t make up their mind which one," Hensley said.
The rioters also took other prisoners hostage. Over the 11-day siege, nine inmates and one guard were killed.
The riot riveted the state and the nation
“I’m freaking out, you know. You’ve got a brother down what is going on? Yeah, those were some hard days," said Jackie Bowers.
Bowers’ brother, George Skatzes, was one of the inmates – he'd been sent to Lucasville for a murder in 1982.
Skatzes was one of the so-called “Lucasville Five” - the ringleaders. Skatzes served as the spokesman for the inmates on a broadcast that aired during the riot on a local radio station.
“We are not going to bow down, we are not going to give up. We are going to remain no matter what they put on us. If we die we die," Skatzes said in the radio broadcast.
Meanwhile, state leaders were handling the riot from Columbus. Current Gov. Mike DeWine was then-Gov. George Voinovich’s lieutenant governor, and served as the point person during the ordeal.
“You know, it's a unique situation because when you look at from a communication point of view, the prisoners were listening to the radio, the prisoners were getting TV. And so anything it was was put out, you know, they they got and then, you know, very quickly, this turns into a negotiation with hostages. And the goal, the prime goal, really the goal was to save lives and to, you know, be able to protect the lives of everybody in there," DeWine said.
As the riot dragged on, National Guard members were brought in, to join the state troopers and other law enforcement.
Mike Dawson, former press secretary for late Gov. George Voinovich, said he was working 16 hours a day through the crisis. He said authorities were working together to get reliable information.
"Although as the riot became older, and in terms of number of days, the prisoners actually established a schedule. And so, like at 6:00, they wouldn't negotiate anymore. They were done for the day. And so that was kind of interesting to watch them get into a pattern. The FBI had very sophisticated listening equipment that they had drilled up into the floor of the room where they were doing the negotiations from so we could hear what was being said when they weren't negotiating," Dawson said.
And even after corrections officer Robert Vallandingham was strangled by the inmates and his body was thrown into the recreation yard, storming the prison was not something state leaders were willing to do.
“There was a tremendous amount of pressure, as you remember, to storm the prison, and particularly after officer of landing ham died. You know, you can imagine people in in not just in the community, but, you know, throughout the state were demanding that, you know, we we go in and, you know, the governor, to his credit, resisted that and stayed focused on how do we protect the lives, how do we save the most lives," DeWine explained. "I think if you look at other examples where there's a storming of a prison, those are very high risk situations as far as the deaths of the of the hostages."
The media blackout and the standoff
Journalists from around the country poured in, joining the ones who’d been camped there since the beginning, and under pressure from their outlets were frenetic, looking for updates to report.
“Not much information came from official sources. We tried. We tried and tried to get whatever we could see from different angles," Otte said.
John Remy, a former reporter for WTVN- AM in Columbus, found an unusual angle.
“I climbed a tree one afternoon for the 3:00 news and people are laughing at me. 'Oh, Remy, what are you doing up there?' And I got up there and started," Remy said. "I was able to see in to the grounds of the penitentiary and I was starting to get a little bit of better view of things and all of a sudden I wasn't so crazy and there were people trying the same thing."
“People from the neighborhood, near and far, would come to tell us what they had heard through the grapevine of what was going on inside the prison through the corrections officers that were going to work. A lot of that was not accurate. There were rumors. A lot of rumors," Otte said.
The media blackout helped fuel inflated numbers of dead prisoners, terrible stories of torture and other false reports. The lawyer negotiating for the inmates said they believed the state had planted the stories.
In hindsight, DeWine suggested the prisons department should have given the media more, yet careful, information.
"So I think probably, you know, having the director out there, maybe even having the warden out out there talking to the press every day still would have been extremely careful in what they said. But that probably would have dealt with some of the rumors," DeWine said.
After 11 long days, negotiations paid off. The inmates surrendered on a long, seven hour, live broadcast on a Cincinnati area TV station. A few days later, reporters began to survey the damage inside. Otte was the t.v. pool reporter.
"Imagine anything and everything that wasn’t bolted down was tossed out of all of the cells and piled up in the common areas. Everything was destroyed…….radios and tv’s….those were broken, everybody’s personal belongings, photos and scrapbooks were tossed around everywhere," said Otte. "I remember walking down the hallway seeing written in what might have been paint, it might have been blood, in big letters, 'CONVICT UNITY' . And a chill went through me thinking that probably went up early on.'
Lessons learned resulted in changes
Those deadly and frightening eleven days shook up business as usual not just at the Department of Corrections, but also the state. Officials said the lessons learned here at Lucasville three decades ago are still having an impact on Ohio's prison system.
“Probably the biggest thing that took place following the riot was a reconstruction of the of the cell blocks," said Wilkinson, the former prisons director. "For example, the correction officers station was among the inmates. Previously, we built a new enclosed stations for them with escape hatches. You know, following that, it could go up through the ceiling to escape if a disturbance did take place. We had new rules regarding movement and classification of persons."
Cynthia Davis is now the warden at Lucasville. She said there’s no more double bunking in cells. And she said there’s a focus on programs now – recognizing that of the 21,000 incarcerated people who leave Ohio prisons each year, about two dozen of them are leaving Lucasville every month.
“We have recovery service programs. We have Sinclair College has been implemented here. We do GED programs. We do decisions points just cognitive behavioral programming to help the individuals deal with some of their thinking," Davis said.
Inmates have painted murals in the reading nook area where small children visit with family members. Inmates have also painted a hallway in tribute to veterans who have served in a variety of ways through a variety of conflicts. And unlike 1993, when inmates got to place one call to family members at Christmas time, they now get to make those calls more often. 300,000 were logged from the facility in March alone.
Lucasville and the deadly riot remembered
This year, a short ceremony was held in Lucasville to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the riot. A wreath was laid to honor Vallandingham, the slain prison guard.
His friend Darrell Logan was also one of the guards, and was on the SWAT team during the riot. He’s getting ready to retire soon. He said the prison is safer now and he thinks inmates are being treated better.
"They are human beings. They are just like us. They just made a mistake and they are behind bars while we are not," Logan said.
And inmates convicted of being involved with the riot are serving extra time or have been sentenced to death, including Skatzes, who was found guilty of three riot-related murders. His sister maintained he is innocent and continues to fight for his freedom.
"It hurts me to think I’ll never be able to go anywhere with my brother again like when we were younger and then he has to die for somebody else who did it," Bowers said.
Wilkinson said a lot of lives were changed because of the riot.
"The disturbance in some respects was a wake-up call, not just for the Department of Corrections but the State of Ohio," Wilkinson said.
And corrections officers such as Clark are hoping that wake-up call will be put into action.
"That way we don't relive the tragic, the death and destruction ever again. In my opinion. It just don't affect staff. It affects their families. It affects community. It affects everybody," Clark said.
To view the full video story, click here:
News reporters who covered the riot found it difficult to cover. Hear more about their challenges and frustrations here:
Some are still fighting
In the story, prison guards told us how they continue to deal everyday with memories from the riot. Family members of condemned inmates are struggling too. Jackie Bowers is the sister of George Skatzes, one of the inmates condemned to death after the riot. For more than two decades, she has been fighting his conviction. Hear more from Jackie here: